Classic Cars on Film: American Graffiti

Our resident film guru explains the charms of George Lucas’s American Graffiti – the car film by which all others are judged

For many of us, some films alter viewpoints while their images remain indelible. My own are A Matter of Life and Death, Room at the Top, Whistle Down the Wind, Heaven’s Above!, Billy Liar!, The Pumpkin Eater, Quatermass and The Pit – plus a low-budget picture in which a bunch of greasers in a customised 1951 Mercury Sport Coupe contrive to wreck a police Ford Galaxie. And from the moment Herbie & The Heartbeats play the introduction to At The Hop, 1973’s American Graffiti is still one of the greatest sequences in cinema history.

The background to the film is well known; George Lucas, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, set the narrative in a small Californian town in the summer of 1962. The timing was deliberate, as this was widely seen as the last year of US innocence before the events of November 22, 1963 – John Landis would set Animal House within the same period.

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Three of the main characters – Steve Bolander (Ron Howard in a 1958 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe), Terry ‘The Toad’ (Charles Martin Smith on a Vespa GS 160) and Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfus in a Citroën 2CV AZA) – represented the filmmaker’s youth. Their local hero is John Milner, and the actor Paul Le Mat will forever be associated with this drag racer in a yellow 1932 ‘five-window’ Ford Deuce Coupe, who is already questioning his efforts in retaining his crown as ‘King of The Strip’.

Setting the 1960s scene

The recent past is the most difficult of all periods to capture, especially on a limited budget ($770,000 was a very low figure even in the early 1970s), and thus the achievements of American Graffiti are nothing short of incredible. There are a very small number of anachronisms – the red VW Beetle Convertible is a 1963 model, Curt’s Deux Chevaux dates from 1967, while Harrison Ford wore a Stetson hat as he refused to sport a period flat-top for his character of Bob Falfa.

The plot centres on Modesto, but in reality it was shot in San Rafael and Petaluma. However, this is mere trivia in a picture that is replete with beautifully observed details. The Edsel Corsair – already a joke car by the early 1960s; the auto dealer literally sitting on his perch, waiting to pounce on the luckless Toad and lure him into buying ‘a practically new ’Vette’; and the Mercury Eight, Hudson Hornet Club Coupe and Chrysler Windsor as just three of the background vehicles.

A Morris Minor 1000 and Austin-Healey ‘Frogeye’ Sprite also dart past the various Chryslers and Lincolns, while the acclaimed band Flash Cadillac & The Continental Kids deliberately played their numbers brashly as that high-school group Herbie & The Heartbeats. Their keyboard player is even seen chewing gum as they perform a cover of Richard Berry’s Louie Louie.

Two of the central quartet seem to have deliberately limited horizons; you know that Bolander will ultimately remain in his hometown, and by 1967 he will be running an insurance office, polishing his Rambler American 440 Station Wagon every Sunday and writing letters to the local newspaper complaining about hippies.

Terry The Toad seems more overtly vulnerable, dwarfed by the Impala he has borrowed from Steve. On television, Walter Cronkite is already presenting news bulletins concerning ‘Viet-Nam’. Terry’s fate, which we learn in the closing credits, is a sadly plausible one. The other main protagonists feel a sense of inertia, and are slowly learning the lesson that their world is not immutable.

Curt is already positioned as an outsider by both his choice of car – at that time you had to be some kind of beatnik to drive a 2CV – and his weariness with the routine within Modesto. He considers remaining at home, still going to Mel’s Drive-In every Friday night, but the warnings of becoming trapped are all about him.

The Pharaohs, the resident greaser gang, look nearer to 30 than 20. And when Curt finally meets Wolfman Jack, the DJ who serves as the film’s Greek Chorus, he encounters not a young hipster but an affable gentleman whose teen years ended a decade and a half ago. ‘I’m not a young man anymore,’ the Wolfman reflects.

Moving on

To Curt, the blonde lady in the white 1956 Ford Thunderbird initially represents the ‘most perfect, dazzling creature ever’, but she represents a Siren that Henderson has to reject ultimately; his future lies elsewhere. Lucas subsequently observed: ‘The film is saying that you have to go forward. You have to be Curt; you have to go into the 1960s.’ The ‘1950s can’t live’, and this is why Le Mat’s character is the most poignant figure in the story.

When Henderson is wavering in his decision to attend college on the East Coast, Steve warns him: ‘You wanna end up like John? You just can’t stay 17 forever.’ Milner is already aged 22, and for him: ‘Rock and roll has been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.’ John is already starting to look back; the graveyard of wrecked De Sotos and Plymouths is a reminder of the fates John tempts every time he races his Deuce.

Meanwhile, a new generation of ‘grungy little twerps’ regard Bill Haley & The Comets as pop history and The Beach Boys as ‘boss’. John merely refers to this new sound as ‘surfing shit’ – while across the Atlantic a Liverpool quartet release a minor skiffle/rhythm and blues hybrid number entitled Love Me Do.

The Beatles would not make an impact in the US until 1964, but in American Graffiti change is already occurring beyond the perimeter of Modesto. For John, the out-of-towner Falfa represents a threat not just because of his arrogance but because of his choice of car.

In 1955, the Chevrolet One-Fifty was the epitome of Eisenhower-era affluence, and now this upstart dares to parody John’s own recent past while referring to his beloved ’32 Ford as ‘your mama’s car’. The film opens with Rock Around the Clock, but the climactic duel between Milner and Bob is accompanied by the Stax sound of Booker T & the MGs.

American Graffiti went on release on August 11, 1973 – and, to quote the great critic Roger Ebert, ‘no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.’ ‘Where Were You In ’62?’ asked the posters, and the film conveys you from mundane surroundings to a world in which an epoch of popular culture is drawing to a close. Cue the music!

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